Coasting to a surprisingly easy win for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam heads into the fall election with an unexpected boost: Ed Gillespie’s difficult — and perhaps disputed — Republican victory, one viewed as fresh evidence of candidate-crippling discord within the GOP over President Donald Trump.
Northam dispatched Tom Perriello in a heavily attended primary, vanquishing the former one-term congressman’s claim that a big turnout — fueled by his emphasis on national issues and the support of such progressive headliners as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — augured a win for his last-minute insurgent candidacy.
Democrats cast about 543,000 votes — a record for a Virginia gubernatorial primary in either party — with Northam aided by a strong performance in his Hampton Roads home base and among African-Americans and other Democratic regulars, particularly in Northern Virginia and the Richmond area.
The GOP primary generated approximately 366,000 votes, with roughly 4,300 separating Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, from Corey Stewart, a Prince William County supervisor who loudly mimicked Trump’s appeal to devotees of the Old Confederacy, gun-rights absolutists and immigration foes. Frank Wagner, a state senator from Virginia Beach, was a distant third.
The primary sets up a general election between a native Virginian with a soft drawl, Northam, who seeks to pair an appeal to bipartisan sensibilities with building anger at Trump, and Gillespie, a non-native originally from New Jersey who must find a way to lure election-deciding independents and hold voters loyal to the new president he has largely avoided.
Even before the primary, the Virginia election emerged as a swing-state referendum on Trump, who was defeated here by Hillary Clinton last November by 5 percentage points and remains deeply unpopular. Trump’s approval rating in Virginia, in public and private polls, is currently about 35 percent, creating headwinds for Gillespie and other Republicans.
That was approximately President Barack Obama’s approval rating in 2014, when Gillespie — clearly aided by distaste for the Democrat — came within a whisker of defeating U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, recently lifted to renewed national prominence as a leader of the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
That Stewart came menacingly close to upsetting Gillespie — the consistent favorite in polls and of the GOP donor class — was another shock to Establishment Republicans, some of whom had predicted an effortless Gillespie victory with 50 percent or more of the primary vote.
But the Gillespie organization apparently detected a last-minute surge for Stewart and, according to online news reports, sought to blunt it with a social media appeal that Gillespie, too, would be protective of Confederate monuments that Stewart had loudly vowed to save from the wrecking ball in Charlottesville and elsewhere.
In the Democratic primary, Northam was endorsed by nearly all of the party’s elective officials — from the statehouse to the courthouse. That included the departing governor, Terry McAuliffe, who no doubt sees the election as a validation of his administration and, perhaps, evidence of presidential appeal in 2020.
Northam accumulated those chits during a decade in Democratic politics, starting with his election to the Virginia Senate in 2007.
His primary victory would suggest that Virginia, though next door to Washington, D.C., still makes a distinction between national and state politics.
To wit, Northam wasn’t even penalized for acknowledging to The New York Times early in the campaign that he twice voted for President George W. Bush, claiming that it was an uninformed decision made before he veered from medicine to politics.
Northam’s substantial advantage in campaign cash — he appears to have spent about $8 million to Perriello’s $4 million — allowed him to clog the airwaves with commercials that hit on multiple themes: resistance to Trump and support for abortion rights and gun control, issues on which Perriello, as a congressman from a rural area, had been squishy.